Eli Boettger | @boettger_eli | 06/16/20
How does the Mountain West recover from having one of its finest seasons ever cut short? The conference’s top two teams — San Diego State and Utah State — were poised to make NCAA Tournament runs behind their senior leaders. All of that has since washed away.
The Aztecs will never know if their 30-2 regular season would have translated to a Final Four appearance. The Aggies will never know if Sam Merrill had another heroic shot in him during March Madness.
This is truly one of the humbling times in Mountain West basketball history, and it has come to no fault of its own. San Diego State and Utah State’s storybook seasons were prematurely ended by COVID-19, and now it’s time to turn the page and focus on the future.
With that in mind, here’s a way-too-early look at Mountain West basketball rankings for the 2020-21 season.
1. San Diego State Aztecs (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 30-2, 17-1 MW)
The conversation about San Diego State basketball this summer starts and ends with Malachi Flynn. The do-it-all Aztecs point guard is exactly what the SDSU program had lacked for years, and his monster production (17.6 ppg, 5.1 apg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 spg) is a key reason why Brian Dutcher’s program went from missing the NCAA Tournament to becoming one of the nation’s most dominant teams.
Flynn has since signed with an agent and wrapped his college career. The not-so-unexpected loss will definitely hurt SDSU, but it won’t be a death sentence. Cal State Northridge grad transfer Terrell Gomez joins the fold and is expected to start at point guard. Gomez, who is listed at 5-8, started each of his 96 career appearances with Northridge while averaging over 17 points a game and knocking down 43.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. Though his game might not be nearly as well-rounded as Flynn’s, Gomez is a formidable recovery option in the post-Flynn era.
Elsewhere, wings Jordan Schakel (10.0 ppg) and Matt Mitchell (12.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) are set for their senior seasons and will be all-conference candidates once again. The duo should be expected to make another leap offensively to take some of the pressure off Gomez.
Nathan Mensah could be the difference between SDSU remaining a top-25 squad or relinquishing the Mountain West crown. The 6-10 forward is a beast inside, having his way with Utah State’s star center Neemias Queta in the past. Mensah missed the final 19 games of the season due to a blood clot in his lungs and his status moving forward is yet to be determined. If healthy, Mensah will be a disruptor defensively and will help transition from Yanni Wetzell’s (10.0 ppg) departure. Overall, San Diego State is the league’s favorite until proven otherwise.
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2. Boise State Broncos (2019-20 Finish: 5th | 20-12, 11-7 MW)
Comparing Leon Rice to former Nevada head coach Eric Musselman would be a lazy take, but one can assume that Rice’s increased transfer involvement is partially influenced by Musselman’s previous successes.
The ’20-21 Broncos will feature several transfers, including returning wing and former Oregon Duck Abu Kigab (11.1 ppg) and newly eligible contributors in Marcus Shaver (14.8 ppg with Portland), Emmanuel Akot (15 starts with Arizona), Mladen Armus (8.0 ppg with East Tennessee State) and Devonaire Doutrive (29 appearances with Arizona).
Transfer-heavy rosters are usually boom or bust, and there is plenty of reason to believe why Boise State will be the former instead of the latter. Assuming his eligibility this coming season, Doutrive would be the only one of the four newcomers who didn’t spend a full redshirt year in Rice’s program. This allows the transition to be much smoother than bringing in a handful of grad transfers who are new to the team.
Boise State is positioned nicely beyond the transfers as well. Derrick Alston was an all-conference selection after tallying 17.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. His pending draft decision will play a huge role in determining Boise State’s ceiling this coming season. Meanwhile, guard Rayj Dennis is already ahead of schedule after earning 15 starts as a freshman and showing bursts of potential. It might not be a cohesive unit in November and December, but the Broncos could be knocking on SDSU’s door once the Mountain West tournament rolls around in March.
3. Utah State Aggies (2019-20 Finish: 2nd | 26-8, 12-6 MW)
Much like San Diego State, Utah State was hugely impacted by COVID-19 canceling the NCAA Tournament. After a challenging start to league play, the Aggies got hot down the stretch for the second year in a row, lending the way to Sam Merrill’s heroics in a thrilling, last-second win over San Diego State in the Mountain West final.
We’ll never know what Craig Smith’s team could have accomplished the rest of March, but we do know that the program will have to build itself back up after losing Merrill — the team’s heart and soul the past four years — to graduation. Fortunately for Smith and company, there’s plenty of capable pieces on campus this fall.
Utah State will have not only one of the best frontcourts in the Mountain West this season, but also the entire nation. Big man Neemias Queta is back for his junior season after originally considering a one-and-done college career. Queta (13.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.9 apg) will join forces with scrappy Justin Bean (11.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and productive Alphonso Anderson (8.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg).
The backcourt is where the questions linger. Merrill’s absence is compounded by starting point guard Abel Porter transferring to Ohio State — Utah State was 40-11 with Porter starting the past two seasons — and lockdown defender Diogo Brito graduating. The new guard mix will consist of Virginia transfer Marco Anthony (0 career starts), unranked freshmen Steven Ashworth, Rollie Worster and Max Shulga, senior Brock Miller — a labeled perimeter shooter whose 3-point clip dipped to 30.5 percent this past season — and sophomore Sean Bairstow. Utah State hit the transfer market hard this spring and came up empty, which could prove to be costly as the season progresses.
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4. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (2019-20 Finish: 4th | 17-15, 12-6 MW)
Don’t let the ho-hum 17-15 record fool you — UNLV was one of the better teams in the Mountain West this past season. Many pundits weren’t sold on the decision to tab former South Dakota State head coach T.J. Otzelberger as the new program leader last year, but the early returns show plenty of promise.
In Year 1, Otzelberger’s group won 12 league games and recorded the highest conference winning percentage since Lon Kruger’s 2011 tournament team. The Runnin’ Rebels could have finished with a much better win-loss record as well if it weren’t four overtime losses and five other defeats by seven points or fewer.
As is often the case with UNLV basketball, roster turnover is going to play a huge part in the program’s successes and shortcomings. The Rebels lost more starters via the transfer market this spring, including lead guard Amauri Hardy (14.5 ppg, 3.3 apg), perimeter shooter Jonah Antonio (13 starts) and former Utah forward Donnie Tillman (10.1 ppg).
That would typically be too much for a Mountain West to overcome, but UNLV still has plenty of talent at its disposal. Bryce Hamilton (16.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) blew up as a sophomore into an all-conference player, Marvin Coleman’s playing time skyrocketed from 4.2 to 26.9 minutes per game, and redshirt transfer David Jenkins Jr. (19.7 ppg with South Dakota State in ’18-19) played two seasons under Otzelberger before heading to Vegas. Some frontcourt questions need to be ironed out, but the backcourt group looks phenomenal on paper and should be just as good as advertised.
5. Colorado State Rams (2019-20 Finish: 6th | 20-12, 11-7 MW)
The future is bright in Fort Collins. Niko Medved’s team showed some serious promise in Year 2, punching out 20 victories despite one of the youngest rotations in the nation.
Four of CSU’s top five contributors this past season were underclassmen. The exception to the quintet was superstar big man Nico Carvacho, whose graduation will prevent the Rams from receiving substantial preseason hype. Even without Carvacho, there is a lot to like about Medved’s squad this season.
Isaiah Stevens (13.3 ppg, 4.5 apg) and Kendle Moore (9.0 ppg, 43.5 3P%) run the show in the backcourt, a pair of high-energy guards who are far more efficient offensively than previous CSU backcourt members. Given Stevens’ production in his first season, the ’19-20 Mountain West freshman of the year has the potential to become the face of the conference in years to come.
Defense will dictate Colorado State’s progression. Carvacho wasn’t an all-world rim-protector, but his size and rebounding ability helped anchor a CSU defense that was otherwise average. Players like David Roddy, Adam Thistlewood and Dischon Thomas will be relied upon to improve the nation’s 172nd-ranked defense. This team could be scary good if CSU bumps up the tempo and improves another tier defensively while Stevens evolves into a go-to scorer.
6. Wyoming Cowboys (2019-20 Finish: 11th | 9-24, 2-16 MW)
From nine wins to No. 6 in the Mountain West? It might be a stretch, but it isn’t impossible. Jeff Linder is the new leader on campus, using a successful four-year tenure at Northern Colorado to replace the outgoing Allen Edwards in Laramie.
Linder and his staff have immediately gone to work to rebuild the Cowboys. The biggest wins of the offseason were convincing Hunter Maldonado (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.0 apg), Hunter Thompson (8.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Kwane Marble (8.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg) to return to campus after mulling transfer options. The trio helped spark a stunning run in the Mountain West tournament, upsetting both Colorado State and Nevada and trading punches with Utah State after winning just two conference games all season.
It won’t be the same roster, sure, but the momentum that the returning Wyoming players experienced in Las Vegas should serve as a reminder during summer workouts of what the future could hold. Linder has been busy on the recruiting trails as well, bringing in what Rivals.com ranks as the top incoming class in the conference. Wyoming’s class checks in at No. 50 nationally, led by 3-star recruit Jeremiah Oden, a 6-8, 190-pound forward out of Kansas. The Arena Auditorium doesn’t expect to be a fun place for opponents once Linder gets momentum swinging in his direction.
7. Nevada Wolf Pack (2019-20 Finish: 3rd | 19-12, 12-6 MW)
Jalen Harris opting to turn pro was an absolute gut punch for Nevada’s ’20-21 hopes. Harris’ production would have been more than enough to earn Mountain West player of the year honors if it weren’t for Malachi Flynn’s heroics this past season. The former Louisiana Tech guard averaged 21.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game, oftentimes coming up with Nevada’s answer when there were no other options.
With Harris gone, things are looking somewhat bleak in Reno. Including Harris’ departure, Nevada loses four of its top five scorers and has just one returning player (Zane Meeks) who averaged more than five points a game.
Steve Alford’s second year with the Wolf Pack will feature zero seniors, and Brown transfer Desmond Cambridge (16.5 ppg in 57 career games) will be the team’s top player. Nevada could still wind up in the middle of the pack in the league standings, but there are far too many question marks and general inexperience across the roster to expect anything close to what Nevada fans have grown accustomed to the past few years.
8. New Mexico Lobos (2019-20 Finish: 7th | 19-14, 7-11 MW)
Despite a 19-win season total, the ’19-20 season will be viewed as a heavy disappointment in Albuquerque. Talent couldn’t save the Lobos from unfolding as the season progressed, with injuries and off-court distractions proving to be too costly.
Now is the time for the trio of Zane Martin (10.1 ppg), Makuach Maluach (9.6 ppg) and Keith McGee (5.9 ppg) to step up. UNM has a long list of graduates and transfers this spring, and there are few places on the roster to lean on for experience.
The ’20-21 New Mexico season will go one of two ways: Either the aforementioned trio embraces leadership roles and guides the young Lobos or the team’s inexperience and decreased talent level will prevent the group from meshing together.
Redirecting Paul Weir from recruiting stars and high-major transfers to hard-nosed, underdog players could be a blessing in disguise for the program. After all, Weir’s best work has come when leading players like Joe Furstinger or Antino Jackson, two key contributors from the ’17-18 team that started slow and fell just a few baskets short of the NCAA Tournament.
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9. Fresno State Bulldogs (2019-20 Finish: 8th | 11-19, 7-11 MW)
Few teams around the country have faced as much internal roster turmoil as Fresno State this spring. In addition to three starters graduating in New Williams, Nate Grimes and Noah Blackwell, a whopping seven Bulldogs have elected to transfer out of the program, which is one of the highest totals in college basketball.
The biggest loss is freshman Jarred Hyder, who could have been Fresno State’s lead guard for both the present and future. With Hyder off to Cal, Justin Hutson’s team will lean on a mix of Niven Hart (8.7 ppg, 39.8 3P%) and a handful of newcomers in the backcourt. DePaul grad transfer Devin Gage will look to return to his ’18-19 form where he started every game and tallied just over nine points an outing with the Blue Demons.
Las Vegas native Orlando Robinson is the new face of the program. Following in the footsteps of productive forwards Bryson Williams and Nate Grimes, Robinson averaged 12.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a freshman and could be an all-conference guy in due time. His workload will increase substantially given Fresno State’s offseason departures.
10. San Jose State Spartans (2019-20 Finish: 10th | 7-24, 3-15 MW)
This will be the second year in a row that I don’t have San Jose State pegged as my 11th-place finisher in the Mountain West. Whether that says more about SJSU or the league’s other teams is up for debate, but there are some solid building blocks for the Spartans heading into the fall.
Wing Seneca Knight (17.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.4 apg) is one of the best players the program has seen in years, and could be SJSU’s most important returning player since Brandon Clarke came back for the ’16-17 season.
Jean Prioleau’s program has been gutted by double-digit scorers transferring since he took over in 2017. This offseason has gone relatively well in that regard, though, with Zach Chappell (6.1 ppg) and Christian Anigwe (5.2 ppg) listed as the team’s only non-senior departures.
At the end of the day, this is still a team that won seven games and ranked worse than 260th nationally on both ends of the court this past season. SJSU was far more competitive this past season than in prior years, though, and with Knight and Richard Washington (10.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) back on campus, there’s reason to believe a few more games could go Prioleau’s way in ’20-21.
11. Air Force Falcons (2019-20 Finish: 9th | 12-20, 5-13 MW)
The ’19-20 season was supposed to be a special one for Air Force. Instead, the Falcons stumbled to a ninth-place conference finish and relieved Dave Pilipovich of his coaching duties after eight years with the program.
The newish leader of the program is Joe Scott, who makes his second stint in Colorado Springs after leading the Falcons from 2000 to 2004. Not much has changed with Air Force basketball since Scott left to take over at Princeton as the Falcons last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2006 and haven’t finished above .500 in league play since 2007. Scott has since made stops in Denver as head coach and had assistant roles with Holy Cross and Georgia.
The work is cut out for Scott and company, which not only have one of the nation’s toughest jobs but also face a pretty bare cupboard heading into the ’20-21 campaign. A.J. Walker (11.1 ppg) returning to campus after receiving high-major interest in the portal is a positive sign. Figuring out how to stay competitive after graduating four of the team’s top five scorers on a 20-loss team will be a challenge.
Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.
Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.